2 more cases of measles at migrant shelter on Lower West Side, bringing location’s total to 4

Two new cases of measles emerged Monday from the Lower West Side shelter where two children earlier tested positive for the virus, public health officials announced Monday.

The Chicago Department of Public Health said late Monday afternoon that two adults at the quarantined facility on Cermak Road and Halsted Street have tested positive, bringing the total number of cases at the shelter to four. The first case in the shelter was confirmed Friday. That child has recovered and is no longer infectious.

A second child with measles was announced Sunday. The child, a student at Philip D. Armour Elementary School in Bridgeport, has been hospitalized and remains in good condition, according to city officials.

Cook County reports two measles cases linked to illnesses in Chicago

Officials said Monday that the city’s first reported case of measles since 2019 — announced Thursday — was documented on the Northwest Side and unrelated to the asylum-seekers.

Measles, a serious respiratory infection that causes a rash and high fever, can be particularly severe for young children and can lead to other complications such as pneumonia. The first positive case at the city’s largest migrant shelter, where nearly 1,896 people live in close quarters, prompted fast action from the city over the weekend as health care professionals descended on the Lower West Side to assess the shelter’s residents.

A team from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was dispatched to Chicago to assist with screening and vaccinating residents at the shelter, CDPH said in its Sunday statement. The city’s Public Health Department said it vaccinated more than 900 residents, and that another 700 migrants were “found to already be immune from previous vaccination or infection.”

All residents of the shelter who have not finished with their measles vaccination series were placed on a 21-day lockdown, the CDPH said.

“As far as what we’re doing, our Chicago Department of Public Health has been on the ground in various spaces, particularly this one shelter that has had this outbreak,” Mayor Brandon Johnson told reporters Monday. “The number of migrants in particular who were unvaccinated, who are vaccinated now, that number has substantially grown in terms of those who have gotten shots in their arms.”

Public health officials were quick to say that despite the outbreak in the shelter, the risk to the general public is very low because most people in Chicago, and the U.S., are vaccinated.

“I don’t think we need to worry about every single person in Chicago coming down with measles,” said Dr. Scott Dresden, an associate professor of emergency medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and a Northwestern Medicine physician.

Johnson ascribed the recent cases to vaccine hesitancy as he ramped up messaging on getting inoculated against the disease.

The mayor responded to questions about the outbreak by noting that “most Chicagoans are vaccinated (against measles), particularly those of course who use the public space, public schools in particular.”

“We’re going literally floor to floor with partners, encouraging migrants to get vaccinated,” Johnson said to reporters at an event unrelated to the measles cases. “There are some individuals, whether you’re a migrant or not, people that have some hesitancy and some reticence around it. And so we’re doing some real serious education.”

However, public health officials said low vaccination rates among migrants have more to do with lack of health care coverage in their countries of origin rather than with hesitancy.

Daniela Rodriguez, a scientist at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health who studies how politics and public health affect vulnerable communities around the world, said it’s impossible to know the vaccination rates of Venezuelan migrants because there is no public health data from the South American country’s government.

“The fact that this is happening is not only really sad, but it’s happening in a place … because of a collapse of a system, as opposed to things like misinformation and vaccine hesitancy,” she said.

On Monday, dozens of migrants loaded into buses outside the Lower West Side shelter, which city officials said was to remove residents who were immune from previous vaccination or infection while the officials start “ramping up quarantine logistics.”

Migrants staying at the shelter said several groups had been brought to other shelters and hotels, but they weren’t sure how the city was deciding who to take from the shelter or where to take them.

Danilson Carvojal, 20, said he was vaccinated in his hometown of Caracas, Venezuela. He said his wife was vaccinated in Texas when they crossed into the United States a few months ago.

He held a card stock vaccination slip, on which he said an official had noted that they were immunized.

“Because we got our vaccine before the outbreak, we’re allowed to leave,” Carvojal said. “Supposedly, the city is moving out people who have been vaccinated, but we don’t know if or when we’ll be taken away.”

Carvojal said migrants inside are nervous, especially those with an increased risk of contracting the disease — pregnant women or people with disabilities.

The exact progress made in vaccinating Chicago’s growing population of asylum-seekers remains unclear.

CDPH did not respond to questions requesting overall vaccination data on Chicago’s migrant population, nor did the Illinois Department of Public Health when reached Monday. Officials with Cook County Health, the main medical provider in charge of migrant vaccinations in Chicago, did not immediately respond Monday to inquiries on inoculation numbers.

Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez, 25th, whose ward includes the shelter, said Sunday that the share of unvaccinated residents in that shelter had dipped to 13%. As of Friday, 962 of those staying in the shelter were children.

Chicago Public Schools sent a message to parents Sunday regarding the site’s second confirmed measles case. The district said that staff members and families at the affected school have been notified about the situation.

“We are working with our partners at CDPH to determine vaccination status for all school-aged shelter residents,” CPS wrote.

A two-dose combined measles/mumps/rubella vaccine is among the state’s requirements for all kindergarten through 12th grade students unless a parent or guardian submits either proof that the child previously contracted measles or a religious exemption, according to CPS records. Prekindergarten students must receive one dose.

CPS said it hosts vaccination events and assists the parents of newcomer students with securing health care through Medicaid enrollment, school-based health centers or in coordination with the city health department, hospitals and community health centers.

Under state law, a child or parent has the right to refuse immunizations and may file for religious or medical exemptions, the district noted. But less than half of 1% of students had an exemption as of November, according to CPS.

“The health, safety and well-being of our students and staff is a top priority and that is why Chicago Public Schools is working closely with our City partners, including the Chicago Department of Public Health to respond,” a district spokesperson said in an emailed statement Monday.

“We work closely with families to help them be up-to-date on all vaccinations as it is known as one of the best tools to protect our youth from severe childhood illness,” CPS said.

The lockdown in the shelter has prompted concerns from some aldermen and migrant advocates over how proactively officials have been trying to vaccinate migrants. It also comes with a looming date this weekend for the first enforcement of Johnson’s migrant shelter evictions policy — unless it is delayed for a fourth time.

“Historically, communities of color experience a lower rate of vaccinations due to generational systemic barriers, in many instances not aided or even exacerbated by government-run institutions,” Sigcho-Lopez, a close ally of the mayor, said last week after the first migrant child contracted measles.

United Working Families Executive Director Kennedy Bartley, a close Johnson adviser, said on the X social media platform that there have been nearly 30 vaccination events at shelters citywide that have inoculated almost 15,000 migrants.

“However, there is a backlog, one that has long existed,” Bartley posted Sunday, noting she is not speaking on behalf of the administration. “… because of that backlog, not every new arrival is vaccinated.”

Infectious disease experts said it was challenging to predict how quickly measles might spread within the shelter in the coming days because the rate of transmission depends on how many shelter occupants are immunized.

Dr. Max Brito, an associate professor of infectious disease at the University of Illinois, said he was most concerned about the shelter’s youngest residents, “who may not have been vaccinated (because) they may have spent a lot of their lives in transit.”

While the relative rarity of measles does make the cases detected so far an outbreak, Brito said he was “not that concerned that this will become a public health emergency in the community at large.”

“This is not going to be a public health emergency like COVID,” he said.